Women are expected to accept less in the name of “opportunity,” and cautioned against being “too eager.” But if we don’t demand what we’re worth, who will?
I am no longer working for free.
As a writer, I have built my career on the slippery slope between “Paid-ville” and “Free-town.” Getting to Paid-ville often requires that I catch the local in Free-town. There are proposals, pitches, and submissions, some with my own ideas, for projects that I’m passionate about and hope will pay off at some point. But much of what I’ve been generating has become like an “audition” for work, despite my having an entire portfolio that employers could judge that wouldn’t cost me additional unpaid labor. And increasingly that labor involves my developing other people’s ideas: someone who could pay me money has something that looks like the original drawing for the flux capacitor and will want me to figure out how to time travel. Sure, I get paid if they get paid, but too often I don’t because there are four other people trying to figure it out, as well; then it turns out time travel doesn’t test well, but what they’d really like me to do is figure out mind reading. For free. And then I find myself really wishing I had invented both time travel and mind reading, so I could go back and tell myself not to do this free gig and they could read exactly what I’m thinking when I give a polite, “Pass.”
But most of the time we writers do the gig anyway because it could lead to something and, like a gambling addict, we think this hand is going to be the one. And also because we’re afraid of what happens when we don’t: We could lose our home and end up on the street or worse—someone will label us as “difficult.” But the Catch-22 is that doing the “free work” can also lead to me losing my home and ending up on the street because apparently the bank doesn’t take mortgage payments in the form of “relationships that I’m building.” Why are they being so “difficult”?
I know employers mean well, and really love my “voice”—just not enough to pay me for it. So I would like to think that it’s not their intention to contribute to my oppression or anything. But when you don’t pay women, you are doing just that. We cannot control our own lives if we don’t have the means to support ourselves, or have financial independence from others.
The good news is that my (non-paying) employers are far from alone in being a tool of our oppression! While some of the details of my situation are unique compared to women in other fields (I imagine there’s not a lot of free brain surgeries happening so a hospital can decide if it wants to hire you or not), our work is constantly being undervalued, leading to a system where we never can have full equality or our own agency. A system cleverly called patriarchy.
When women aren’t paid our rights suffer. We lack the discretionary income to donate to politicians and causes that reflect our values and advocate for our interests. Having multiple jobs and side hustles means we don’t have the time to volunteer and fundraise for these same causes. White men can and will donate to white men who then dismiss our needs as “distractions” and “identity politics.” Not paying women maintains this status quo.
So if you want to smash the patriarchy, pay us. Being paid for our work validates it. It sounds like no big deal, but this is extremely important in a world where the work of women is never seen as good as a man’s or is treated as some hobby; where female Presidential candidates who won their elections have to take a backseat to the men who lost theirs. Paying us says we deserve to be there and that you value us equally. And valuing us equally means paying us equally, too.
On April 2, we celebrate Women’s Equal Pay Day, a symbolic day that signifies how many extra days a woman must work in order to catch up to what men earned in the previous year. But April 2 isn’t even the real day for everyone. For White women it’s actually April 19, for Black women it’s August 7, and for Native American women, September 23. Latinas make almost half of what men make, needing to work until November 23. Out of all women, Asian women do the best, and still only make 85 cents to a man’s dollar. All of this means women have to work about 150 percent to break even with men. But how can you give more than everything? Women have been asking themselves that question for years. I think it starts with men letting us cut in front of them at CVS since clearly we don’t have time to wait in line. We need it to work harder than them.
The fact that we make less isn’t breaking news. But we also invest more, too. No, not in our mythical IRAs. Retirement is for people who are paid equitably. We are over-investing in our actual careers. Women have as much as a year and a half extra education and one year extra workforce experience than needed for their position. That means they are overqualified for a job they are already being underpaid for. And they could really use that money to pay off the loans for all that over-education that their male peers didn’t have to get.
And as if it’s not bad enough that we’re overqualified and underpaid, we also have less time to make all that less money. It is actually getting harder for women over 50 to even find a job, and when one does, she faces a greater likelihood that she will be fired based on her age. Yes, that is illegal. But suing for age discrimination can be hard to prove and, regardless of the result, means an already vulnerable party runs the risk of facing further stigma. In the eyes of future employers she could be labeled—yes— difficult.
All of this makes it nearly impossible to do things like save for retirement, which we are going to need because statistically women live longer than men. Only, and please appreciate this irony, we can’t afford the health care we’re going to need while we’re living longer. Women pay 69 percent more than men in out-of-pocket health-care costs. That is, for those of us who have health care: One in five women are either currently uninsured or were in the previous year according to a 2017 Kaiser study on women’s health. That study also found that more women go without services because of costs, foregoing prescriptions, recommended tests, and mental-health services. The bad news is we can’t afford the therapy and medication needed to deal with the crippling depression we feel because we’re not valued as much as men in our culture. The good news is that taking a pill isn’t going to make employers pay us equally anyway, so what problems were these mental-health services really going to fix? But you know what would fix them? Paying us.
For women, getting paid equally for our work is truly a matter of life and death.
Women who aren’t paid fairly can’t leave abusive relationships. Three women are murdered every day by a current or former male partner. We account for 85 percent of domestic violence victims. Twenty-one to 60 percent of these victims lose their jobs because of this abuse; eight million paid work days are lost per year due to domestic violence. This perpetuates the cycle of financial abuse that occurs in a staggering 98 percent of abusive relationships. Abusers often control the economic stability of a relationship either by denying their partner’s access to the finances; preventing them from working or maintaining a job; or by creating crippling debt in the partner’s name. Of the seven out of eight women who return to their abusive partners, a significant portion cites money as the reason.
And it’s not just our lives that are at stake, but our children’s: Women are the primary or sole earners in 40 percent of households with children under 18. That means nearly half of our children are being supported by a parent who is not only underpaid, but who also faced unpaid time off to have the child, difficulty returning to the workforce after, and discrimination trying to move up the ladder when she did. This can result in a wide range of problems from growing up without basic necessities to a lack of educational opportunities. An underpaid mom cannot save for her child’s college education forcing the child to choose between the impossible debt of student loans or finding a job requiring no college education, both of which continue the cycle of financial instability. And of course a mother who can’t leave an abusive relationship means the children growing up in the abusive home are negatively impacted.
Woah. That’s a lot to handle. I mean, employers are just trying to give me an “opportunity” and here I am blaming them for domestic violence. I know they must be feeling defensive, so before you #NotAllFreeWork at me, I want to admit that I’m guilty of this, too. I have asked people to work for free for all the same reasons people have given me: There’s no money for this project. It’s for charity. It could be good exposure. But because I have been complicit, I also understand how easy it is to stop. I recently bought something from a friend who had offered me a “Friends & Family” discount. Of course, I took it: Who doesn’t like saving money? But then I thought about the bigger picture. The reality was that while the discount was nice, the original price wasn’t prohibitive. It was money I was going to spend on something else and it was my choice as to how I allocated it. And then it became about my personal priorities. I didn’t want my friend diminishing their value for me. I know what it’s like to not have my time and work honored and I refuse to perpetuate that for someone else any longer. And so the decision became a very easy one.
If paying women is still not appealing because it’s the right thing to do, consider that it’s also the cool thing to do. There’s a lot of talk from progressives about a revolution. Do you know what’s really revolutionary? Paying women. You want economic justice? Paying women equally is part of what it looks like.
If I’m not being offered something for my time, I’m not just being told my time is not valuable. I’m being actively prohibited from maintaining my own life—to have money to take care of myself when I am sick, to prepare for a time when I am too old to work. My husband is older than I am. Not surprisingly, statistically speaking, he has been the top earner in our household. This has afforded me the ability to do all those “free gigs” for good exposure or donate my work and my time to charitable events. But he could die, or even more likely, leave me for a woman half my age. And I would be left with a bank account full of exposure, but short on money as I quickly near my “working woman expiration date.” I will not be able to do any more “fundraisers” without needing somebody to hold one for me. So it isn’t personal when I turn down free work. The truth is that I can no longer afford to take it unless I want my retirement plan to be lying on the curb until the crows poke my eyes out.
Andrea Dworkin said, “Money speaks, but it speaks with a male voice.” And what I’m realizing is that if I want my voice to matter, I have to speak up. Saying these things out loud, putting them in print, are among the scariest things I’ve done, and I rode the Eurail out of Munich during Oktoberfest. Women are taught that when we ask to be treated fairly we’re demanding, ambitious bitches. But what I also realized is that someone is always getting paid whether we are or not. It’s up to us to know our own worth. No one is going to give it to us.
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